Archive for January, 2009

1/29/09: Germany/Austria trip report, part 1: Danube river cruise

In December of 2008 we traveled to Europe for a Danube river cruise featuring Christmas markets. Kate spent a year in Munich in college and has long wanted to return to Germany for the holiday traditions, including Glühwein (hot mulled wine) and gebrannte Mandeln (sugar-coated roasted almonds). We had a great time on the trip, although traveling in winter weather has its downsides.

We flew Lufthansa direct from PDX to Frankfurt, then took a train to Nuremberg where the cruise started. After we’d booked the cruise, Kate was rather startled to look at a map and realize that Nuremberg is not actually on the Danube; however, it is on the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal. Arriving in Nuremberg and transferring to the U-Bahn (subway), we found that unlike NYC or London, where you have to pay or show payment to get in every time, in Germany and Austria there are no turnstiles in the subway station — just a small validator and a sign saying that you must have a valid ticket past this point. We hardly ever saw anyone buying or validating tickets (probably most locals have passes) and never saw a fare inspector. It was incredibly civilized.

We had booked one night in the Hotel Luga before the cruise, and found it pleasant and welcoming but slightly shabby. But there were Oblaten-Lebkuchen (gingerbread cookies) on the pillows, a Nuremberg specialty that turned out to be a bit of a theme for the trip. We napped a couple hours, on top of sleeping most of the way on the train… I’d forgotten how enervating and disorienting jet lag is.

After we’d napped and eaten our Lebkuchen, we bundled up and went out to see some sights. I hate the cold, but I had my down jacket, polar fleece scarf, Keen boots, and Tilley Winter Hat and was comfortable enough. (I love my fabulous Tilley Winter Hat. I bought it especially for this trip, and Kate was so impressed by it she bought one too.) “So this is what 7° C feels like,” we said to each other, and spent most of the rest of the trip using Celsius to plan our wardrobe for the day (even though much of the available information was in Fahrenheit as well). Even though my only German lessons had been a few night classes in about 1987 (when I worked for an Intel-Siemens joint venture), and I’d barely used the language since, I found that it all came back when I needed it. I wasn’t nearly as fluent as Kate, but I had enough of the language for basic touristing.

We took the Strassenbahn (tram) to the Museum Industrielkultur, where we saw lots of keen vehicles and machines including some very strange early bicycles, a miniature steam engine with little railings so your imaginary engineers don’t fall off, and two cars with front- and rear-facing bench seats and large doors in front and back (not on the sides). I kept thinking that Jay Lake would love this place.

From the museum we took another tram downtown and walked to the Christmas Market, finding it energetic and very crowded. Nuremberg’s Christkindelsmarkt fills the square in front of the cathedral, with neat rows of booths selling gingerbread, mulled wine, hot citrus punch, bratwurst, Christmas ornaments, handcrafts, and quite a bit of cheap manufactured tat. It was more commercial and uniform than many of the others we saw later, but a good introduction to the phenomenon. All of the mulled wine vendors used a system where you paid a deposit of 2 euros for the mug (a “souvenir” mug for this specific market and year, pink and incredibly ugly) and could refill it as many times, at as many different vendors, as you liked before returning it to any vendor for the deposit. The same system was used at all the other Christmas markets we visited.

We had dinner at Bratwurst Röslein, “the biggest bratwurst restaurant in the world,” sharing a table with a family who’d come into town to visit the market and do some shopping. Every town in Germany has its own characteristic sausage, which locals insist is the finest sausage in the world. The Nuremberger bratwurst is about the size of my index finger, and is generally served three in a bun (“drei in Weckla”), or six or eight or ten on a plate. I had a plate of six, with warm potato salad and Christkindelsuppe (a special Christmas soup with little strips of pancake in it). Yum. After dinner we stopped at the International Market, another Christmas market just around the corner from the main one, for mulled wine and gingerbread for dessert. Back at the hotel, I sat on the radiator for a while to warm up before going to bed.

The next day, after a very nice breakfast in the hotel, we visited the Dokumentationszentrum Reichsparteitagsgelände, a fascinating museum built inside the Nazi Congress Hall (an enormous arena and conference center built by the Nazis, incomplete at the war’s end but still standing in its unfinished state). Exhibits in the hall cover the period from the Beer Hall Putsch to the Nuremberg Trials, with an emphasis on the Party’s and Hitler’s rise to power and the huge annual Party rallies held here in Nuremberg. It’s appalling how quickly Hitler came to power, and interesting that the cult of personality was so consciously crafted. And I have to say that, bad as Bush and the Republicans were, they weren’t nearly as bad as the Nazis.

Returning downtown by tram, we had some difficulty getting past the old city wall even on foot. We had lunch at the Heilig Geist Spital Restaurant, all dark wood and animal heads on the wall, 600 years old… though it was competely destroyed in WWII and rebuilt in 1951. Lots of Germany is like that. It’s almost impossible to tell which buildings are really old and which are 50-year-old reconstructions. After lunch we returned to the Christkindlesmarkt, where we met the Christ Child herself.

Um, that may require some explanation. The Nuremberg Christmas Market is overseen by the Christ Child, who is for some reason portrayed by a young woman in a long blonde wig and a golden angel gown — kind of like the Dairy Princesses at the Wisconsin State Fair. She is selected for a two-year term and must be Nuremberger born, of good character, and free of vertigo. This last is necessary because one of her official duties is to proclaim the opening of the Christmas Market each year… from the cathedral’s balcony… standing on on a box that raises her up where everyone can see her… above the railing. Two strong guys are holding onto her belt when she does this, but I’ve stood on that balcony and I wouldn’t take the job even if I were eligible. Anyway, we saw her greeting the crowd and handing out autographed postcards.

Then we shifted our bags from the hotel to our cruise ship. The Viking Spirit is a long, narrow ship, small by ocean cruise standards –150 passengers on three decks — but as big as it can be and still fit through the canal’s locks. In fact, for the first part of the cruise, where there were some low bridges, the boat folded itself up like a Transformer, with the smokestacks, the radar mast, the railings on the top deck, and even the wheelhouse retracting to make a tidy little rectangular package. Our cabin was comfortable and well-equipped, and not the smallest hotel room we’ve ever had by any means. The one aggravation was the incessant Christmas muzak, which we could at least turn off in our own cabin.

That night we had a welcome and safety lecture, which was mostly about fire alarms and how to avoid plugging the toilets. There was no need for a lifeboat drill, as the ship is 6 meters tall and the river’s only 4 meters deep. This was followed by dinner, where both the food and our table companions were… well, perfectly nice, if a bit mundane. Our fellow travelers were generally only a little older than us, and tended to be very well traveled. They were almost all from the United States, and for some reason most of them were Southerners. (Kate speculated “Who else would choose to take a cruise in the snow?”) The crew, most of whom hailed from Eastern Europe, all spoke English.

Breakfast on the boat was a buffet with a nice variety of American-style and European- style foods. Then we all piled onto three buses for a bus tour of Nuremberg, with stops at the Zeppelin Field (Nazi rally grounds, named for a zeppelin that landed there during WWI), Nuremberg Trials courthouse, and of course the Christmas Market, where we were released on our own recognizance. Having already seen the market itself, we hit a local handicrafts market, cathedral, and bookstore before returning to the market to catch the bus back to the boat. Some of the other passengers were already getting into the Jaegermeister.

Between ongoing jet lag and a hard afternoon of touristing I fell asleep immediately, and when I awoke we’d already set sail. “Hey, our hotel’s moving!” But not all that fast… I noticed bicycles passing us on the canal-side bike trail. It was weird to be sleeping with the landscape going by outside, and the occasional BOOMP in the night as we lightly bumped the wall of a lock. (The ship fit in the locks with inches to spare, but was equipped with rubber baby buggy bumpers.)

We awoke as the boat was docking in Regensburg. We walked out on deck to watch the operation and — BRR! — immediately returned to our cabin for long underwear. I wore those damn long undies every remaining day of the trip. I’m glad I had them but I really got sick of them.

In the smaller towns we had walking tours rather than bus tours, using little radio gizmos so the guide (the boat hired enough local guides in each town that each walking group was only 10-15 people) could speak directly into each passenger’s ear without raising his or her voice. This meant that the tour group wasn’t obnoxious to other people nearby, and you could hear even if you weren’t right next to the guide; in fact, you could even wander off quite a ways. But I found the earpiece very uncomfortable, and many of the guides didn’t understand that the microphone was voice-activated… if they didn’t speak directly into the mike they couldn’t be heard at all.

Regensburg is a spiffy medieval town, featuring the first permanent bridge over the Danube (which, of course, has a story about it involving the Devil… every bridge, cathedral, and other major structure built during the Middle Ages has a story involving the Devil). We had lunch at the Historiches Wurstküche right next to the bridge… there’s been a fast-food joint on this spot ever since the first lunch break of the workmen who built the bridge in the 1100s. We also stopped for an afternoon snack and warm-up at a restaurant specializing in Dampfnudel (steamed dumplings, served with vanilla sauce) located in a tiny medieval chapel. In German, delicious is a verb.

Regensburg, despite its small size, has three Christmas Markets, the most interesting of which was the Romanticher Weinachtsmarket at the Schloss Thurn und Taxis (readers of Pynchon will recognize that name). This one was on the grounds of an actual castle, had strolling medieval musicians, the greatest quality and variety of handcrafts of any of the markets on our trip, and a huge variety of wonderful-smelling foods for sale (unfortunately we’d just had lunch). There were also campfires burning here and there around the grounds for the warming of hands and feet, which was very welcome because it was freaking cold! The only Christmas Market we visited with an admission charge, but well worth it.

When we went back into town after dinner to see the town’s third Christmas Market, we found that all of the booths had just closed except for those selling Glühwein, which were doing a brisk business. All of the town’s hip young people were standing around shoulder-to-shoulder in the cold, drinking mulled wine and “punsch” and having a grand time. It was a happenin’ outdoor singles bar, is what it was. Who knew?

The next day found us in the town of Passau, smaller and steeper than Regensburg. Passau is located at the intersection of three rivers, and many buildings had high-water marks on them. They have serious floods even today, and our guide (who reminded me of my mother) said that when the floods hit you just stay in your house for a few days. Our walking tour included an interesting demo of gingerbread making (three generations of gingerbread bakers) with samples of gingerbread and punsch. We also stopped into the local art museum (the castle on the hill and its museum were closed for the season, alas), which had a very nice exhibition of Toulouse-Lautrec posters and Edo-period Japanese prints. It hurt my head to read about the Japanese “floating world” and how its posters influenced a French artist… all in German.

That night at dinner (on the boat en route from Passau to Linz), one of our female table companions reminded me of Lois Carmen d’Nominator. And if you don’t catch that reference, believe me, you’re happier that way.

Our first stop in Austria was the bustling town of Linz, which is very excited (and very much under construction) about being the European Capital of Culture for 2009, and as the boat was not departing until midnight we decided to take in an operetta. After obtaining tickets, and sampling Linzer Torte, Kate and I went our separate ways for the day. I was the only person in the Linz Genesis museum, and found it eerie that the display cases of skeletons and swords would illuminate themselves as I entered each room, and darken as I departed (an energy-saving measure, but disturbing). I was also the only one at the tiny, and rather scary, museum of dentistry. And then I went to the Schlossmuseum, the city’s main historical site, where I was not alone but the collection was even weirder. Mary Magdalene Bigfoot. A Victorian breast pump. Frightening “updated” loden outfits from the 50s. Disturbing saints. And one room, deep in the stone roots of the ancient castle, containing nothing but a skeleton in a glass case (unlabeled) in one corner. Brr.

Kate and I met up for a quick dinner of döner kebap (typical local fast food) before the operetta. Der Vögelhandler was basically Gilbert & Sullivan in German. I could hardly understand the singing at all, and Kate not much better, but through diligent perusal of the program book we managed to follow the plot, what there was of it. It was definitely extremely silly and lightweight. The weird thing was that, although the audience laughed a lot, we were the only ones laughing at the broadest physical comedy bits.

The next day at 10am we arrived at Melk, a tiny town with a famous abbey, notable for its library and amazing trompe l’oeil ceiling paintings. What would Jesus think of this opulence? The abbey also had an intriguing little modernistic museum about St. Benedict and the Benedictine monks, as well as the Tomb of the Unknown Saint. (“We don’t know who this saint is; we call him Fred.”) The actual town of Melk was so small that its one tiny Christmas Market wasn’t even open on a weekday; we sailed for Vienna at 4pm.

Vienna was amazing, like Paris only unfamiliar. This city was the capital of the civilized world for the better part of a century, and was the highlight of the trip for me. And as this was where we departed the boat and took off on our own, I think I will stop this entry here. To be continued in part 2: Vienna and Munich.

1/15/09: Teaching the pig

Word count: 7916 | Since last entry: 3670

15 days in a row of 500 words a day. I believe I’ve heard it takes 30 days to “set” a new habit. One thing I hope to do differently in the future, though, is to stop leaving the writing until the very end of the day (I got in the habit when I had a day job, of course, but there’s really no reason to do it now). The Internet gets kind of quiet and lonely in the late evening here on the West Coast, especially on a weekday. Europe and most of North America is asleep and there’s not much west of here but ocean.

At least I’ve finally figured out where this story (currently titled “Teaching the Pig to Sing”) is going. At nearly 8000 words already, with one or two major scenes yet to go, it’s way too long, but once it’s done I’m pretty sure I can easily cut a couple thousand words. I’ve been reluctant to trim as I go, since I’m trying to make wordcount. I’m also going to slice and splice and rearrange to get the information on the page before it’s needed (rather than “oh by the way, did I mention that…”) and properly build tension. The great thing about writing, as opposed to life, is that you can go back and change the past to make the present what you want it to be.

It’s been an interesting experience, learning about the world and the characters while writing the story. I think I prefer my usual technique of completely outlining before beginning the draft, though.

Heading to Seattle tomorrow for belated holiday get-together with Kate’s family; we also hope to see the Lucy exhibit.

(Even though it’s just a short drive, I’m still a little twitchy about travel after the problems we had coming back from Germany.

We’ll be okay.)

1/8/09: Eight days and counting

Word count: 4246 | Since last entry: 519

Yoga class today; first one since November. It’s good to stretch and move in those ways again. We’ve also moved up from a level 1 to a level 1-2 class, with a fun instructor I really like. The only downside is that it’s almost too many people for the space, but I bet some people will drop out as the term goes on.

On the recommendation of 21st Century Geeks, we’ve been watching Leverage on TNT. Lightweight, lots of fun, sharply written, reminds me of a non-SF version of Firefly. Others have compared it with The A-Team but I never watched that.

Tonight marks eight days of writing 500 words every day, though I know that’s not much by some people’s standards and I suspect that once I finish this story I will edit out just about everything I wrote tonight. I didn’t outline this story before I started (a downside of the “must write 500 words of actual prose every day, notes and outlines don’t count” plan… might need to re-think that detail) and that means a certain amount of false starts, blind alleys, rewriting, and cutting. I think I know the climactic scene now, but I’m still not sure how to get my protagonist into the situation where the climactic decision is forced, nor which way he’ll jump (well, I have my suspicions but I don’t yet know why). This is a different process for me and it’s probably a good thing to try something different every once in a while, but it’s kind of frustrating.

Also frustrating is waiting for submission responses to arrive and publications to appear. Why does publishing have to be soooo sloooow? I want my instant gratification, and I want it now!

1/7/09: Is that Fahrenheit or Celsius?

Word count: 3727 | Since last entry: 559

The story keeps chugging along (the streak now stands at seven days). It’s still awfully talky and I am certain the first draft will be far too long for the story’s weight, but I can already see places to trim it. I also begin to see a possible ending, though not how to get there.

Kate thought the new hot water heater was set a bit too high, and I agreed, so I went to turn it down. The temperature control knob is labeled as follows: a dot, LOW, another dot, another dot, a triangle, A, B, C, VERY HOT. I turned it down from B to A.

We’re looking into health insurance options. I had resisted the idea of a Health Savings Account, but after our insurance broker explained how it works it might actually be simpler (no claims to process… you just pay all your medical bills with the HSA debit card) and, as long as we stay generally healthy, cheaper. Has anyone reading this used an HSA? Any opinions on US Health Group as an insurer? The other option is a conventional plan with ODS. Any opinions on them?

1/6/09: Recombobulation

Word count: 3168 | Since last entry: 2657

I’ve been horribly discombobulated since we returned from our trip. While we were in Europe, and then stranded in Washington, my regular life was on hold… we weren’t even doing the usual holiday things. I was, for example, looking at my email but setting all the action items aside for later. We had so many false starts and disappointments on the way home, followed by additional bad weather once we finally got here, that somehow I never really got back to my everyday life.

In the past couple of days I’ve tried to address the issue by making to-do lists each day and trying real hard to do everything on them — on the theory that the best way to make yourself feel good is to do stuff. Results have been mixed — I’ve accomplished some stuff and when I’m doing it I feel more in control. But three weeks away from home have made those to-do lists so daunting that even good progress feels inadequate (and I haven’t made good progress every day).

I have managed to stick to my 500-words-per-day goal (thus making my streak six days long and counting), though most days I’ve left the writing until the last thing and haven’t finished writing until midnight or later, struggling to keep my eyes open. The story so far is awfully talky (the viewpoint character is tied up, so there’s not a lot of scope for action) and I’m not certain where it’s going. Oh well, that’s what rewrite is for. Better to have a shitty first draft than nothing.

I’ve been spending more time than I really should on Facebook, mostly searching my friends’ lists of friends for people I know (I’ve managed to accumulate almost 300 friends in just a few days). I’m favorably impressed with the user interface, but the overall experience is somewhat lacking. There are lots more people I know on Facebook than LJ, but the site seems to encourage a broader, shallower interaction than LJ, with brief status updates, links, photos, and cute little applications as the currency rather than the essay-based blog culture of LJ. Facebook started out as a student thing, of course, and in many ways it reminds me of high school writ large, with crowds of users poking each other in the lunch room, scribbling on each other’s locker walls, and vying to amass the largest collection of charm bracelet charms or baseball cards. There’s a lot to do with your friends on Facebook, but it’s all very facile. I suspect I will settle into a mode like the one I have on LinkedIn, where I maintain my network but don’t participate much, and I will continue to have LJ as my primary social networking site. (Unless LJ implodes, of course, which frankly I doubt will happen.)

Oh well. With any luck I will be fully recombobulated soon.

1/1/09: Why do we need to force ourselves to do the things we want to do?

Word count: 511 | Since last entry: 511

On a New Year’s Day a bit more laid-back than our usual, as Kate’s still too sick for parties (though definitely improving), I took care of a number of chores, went for a walk, and attended a brunch (by myself) at the home of a former work colleague. Dinner was take-out Thai. I whacked back the email a bit (and if you’ve sent me any mail in the last month, my apologies for lack of response). And then, finally, at the very tail end of the day, I stopped procrastinating and sat down and wrote. First words of fiction since October, I think. This is the story I’d wanted to write for the “Federations” anthology, but what with one thing and another (most of which, I must admit, were completely under my control) I didn’t even begin it until after the deadline. And I’m not sure where it goes from here. But still, it’s another story and it’s finally under way.

That’s one day in a row. Let’s see how long we can keep the streak going.

12/31/08: 2008 in review

Count me among those who are more than happy to see the back of 2008. Although most of the year was very good for me, the last month or so has been a real train wreck. Illness and weather conspired to deprive us of both Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I’m only now beginning to recover from Post-Travel Stress Disorder brought on by our unplanned week in DC on the way home from Germany. We’ve also had some hassles with health insurance, and the ongoing financial meltdown has taken a psychological toll. I haven’t written a word of fiction since October.

However, when I went to prepare David’s Index, my annual numerical summary of my writing year (which I started doing in 2003 and has since become a meme), I discovered that I’d had a really good writing year up until then. I finished and submitted my second novel, The Dark Behind the Stars. My first short story collection, Space Magic, was published by Wheatland Press. I gave a reading at Powell’s, which was a huge success. And “Titanium Mike Saves the Day” was nominated for a Nebula Award. (It didn’t win, but it will appear in the anthology Nebula Awards Showcase 2009.) I attended the Oregon Coast Novel Weekend, Taos Toolbox, and Launch Pad writers’ workshops, and I was the Short Story Guest of Honor at RadCon.

This year I wrote more stories and sold more stories than in any year since 2003. It was also a better-than-average year for publications, with “Firewall” in Transhuman, “Falling Off the Unicorn” in Space Magic, “Sun Magic, Earth Magic” in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and “Joy is the Serious Business of Heaven” in Realms of Fantasy, plus “Charlie the Purple Giraffe Was Acting Strangely” (reprint) in The Mammoth Book of Extreme Fantasy, appearances in two podcasts, and translations of “Titanium Mike” into French and Czech. Six stories are on deck to appear in 2009.

We remodeled the bathroom. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, but the result is gorgeous. We also worked with a professional organizer several times this year, and the house is now much less cluttered. There’s more work to be done, to be sure, but it’s been a great stress reliever and gives a huge sense of accomplishment.

We traveled a lot. I mean a lot. I spent at least one night in: Kennewick (where we were stranded for five days by an ice storm); Washington DC (square dance); Pasco (SF convention); Seattle (SF convention), then Victoria BC, then Seattle again (square dance); Lincoln City (writing workshop); Eugene (wedding); Palm Springs (square dance); Austin (Nebula Awards); Milwaukee and Madison (SF convention); Taos (writing workshop); Cleveland (square dance); Laramie (writing workshop), then Denver (SF convention); Montreal (SF convention); San Francisco (square dance and a reading); Seattle (SF convention); Calgary (SF convention); and finally our vacation in Germany and Austria: Nuremberg, Regensburg, Passau, Linz, Melz, Vienna, Munich, and Washington DC (where we were stranded for six days by an ice storm). It was fun, but I don’t think we’ll be doing as much travel in 2009, and I certainly hope for better weather.

(We did have a good time in Germany and Austria, honest, though the disasterous trip home does tend to color my memories of the experience. Trip report coming soon.)

My resolution for 2008 was to write a thousand words a day, every day. That lasted about two months, but it did get my novel finished in time for the April workshop.

My resolution for 2009 is inspired by the fact that we did not get to celebrate several major holidays at all in 2008: In 2009, I will celebrate the major holidays. By “celebrate” I mean put up decorations and share a festive meal with friends. By “major holidays” I mean the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving (Vancouver fly-in counts), Winter Solstice, and something in the vicinity of the Spring and Fall Equinoxes (hey, any excuse for a party).

I also intend to write every day, exercise three times a week, watch what I eat, and keep the house clean and decluttered, but those are just goals, not Resolutions.

Happy new year, everyone, and best wishes for a peaceful and prosperous 2009.